Sir Andrew Davis led the BBC Philharmonic in the final instalment of “The Mancunian Way” season at Bridgewater Hall on Friday night. The evening began with the Overture The Street Corner by Alan Rawsthorne, who trained at the Royal Manchester College of Music. From a tight, punchy start, it developed into a flurry of excitement in the strings. The orchestra played as one instrument showing a seamless relationship between sections in addition to an impressive dynamic range that could be achieved in a split second. The charming “oompah” interludes meant the listener couldn’t help but smile and leave still whistling that fragment of melody.

Sir Andrew Davis © Lucas Dawson
Sir Andrew Davis
© Lucas Dawson

Elgar’s Violin Concerto is the longest in the instrument’s repertoire and is shrouded in the enigma of its mysterious dedication. The score bears the inscription “Herein is enshrined the soul of .....” and it is now widely understood that the five dots refer to Alice Stuart-Wortley, whom Elgar referred to as “Windflower”. Her theme runs through the concerto. James Ehnes’ entry as soloist was beautiful. The velvety tone of the short phrase at the beginning of the violin’s entry surpassed anything heard before it and all ears were instantly in tune to what this instrument was saying. The relationship between the soloist and the orchestra was well managed and perfectly balanced, with certain instruments, notably clarinet, horn and first violins almost growing out of the violin line.

After the fury of the first movement, the second highlighted the orchestra’s ability to be completely still and calm and let the music play itself. The delivery was almost spellbinding to the point that the audience itself became part of the performance as it breathed and moved with the music. Throughout the evening, the orchestra played on the dichotomy between sound and silence to a truly wonderful effect, proving Elgar’s own comments that “two souls merge and melt into one another”, as the movement united two themes into one.  

The third movement bursts into frenzy of virtuosic playing against stomping chords and a nod to the cello section. It highlights the skill of the soloist whilst flagging up snippets of themes and almost bell-like tolls in the solo line. The highlight of the movement was the intense shivering depicted by the “thrumming” tremolandos in the strings, whilst the solo plays an elongated version of the original theme.

Although not directly associated with the work, it is acknowledged that Vaughan Williams’ Ninth Symphony was inspired by Thomas Hardy’s novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The bleak opening chord instantly conjures up images of the wide Salisbury Plain as the rumbling brass provides a backdrop of ominous foreboding. The heaviness of the brass and percussion drive the music into the hearts and heads of the audiences in what seems a desperate attempt to tell an untold story. The piccolo hit a perfect balance that cut through the music without shrieking over to the audience. The end of the movement brought the music full circle to the opening, with the addition of the eerie clarinet solo that was delivered with authority.

The second movement features the star of the symphony, the flugelhorn solo, off-set by a march-like pattern. The thick textures and rich harmonies create an almost sarcastic depiction of the typical march associated with early 20th century music.

The Scherzo is a whirlwind fugue of jazz-like, spiky rhythms instigated by a saxophone trio. The divide between brass and the remainder of the orchestra is clearly outlined creating what seems to be a wall of sound, broken up by clever antiphonal passages between string and winds. The performance itself directed the listener to what is happening, creating an enjoyable listening experience.

The final movement presents incremental string layers providing a backdrop to a clear clarinet solo that is allowed to soar over the top of this mesh of sound. The harps were once again in play, but this time with the oboe – a less pure timbre to the flute that was heard at the beginning of the symphony. Perhaps this is another nod to Tess in the form of tainted purity?

Throughout the evening, the horn section was particularly notable. Apart from the tiniest of tuning blips, a rich, proud tone through on numerous occasions, adding a real sense of grandeur to the performance. The quasi-fugal aspect to the movement leads to a broad climax driven by the brass before ending on a brilliant E major chord in a wave of sound shaped by crescendos and diminuendos before coming down to the quietest of sounds. Davis held the tension at the tip of his baton as nothing but silence filled the hall before an eruption of applause.

****1